Stayin’ Alive

Even though he passed away more than 20 years ago, there is a good chance you know the name Gene Siskel.

Siskel was (and probably still is) one of the country’s most famous movie critics. He, along with fellow Chicago movie critic Roger Ebert, hosted a weekly show called “At The Movies” where they would preview and critique films.

You know that thumbs up icon that permeates nearly every social media platform in existence today? Sickle and Ebert came up with that three decades ago. Assigning either a thumbs up or thumbs down to signify whether or not they liked a movie, At one time, Siskel and Ebert were so powerful, that the direction their two appendages faced could literally make or break a movie at the box office.

Famously, Siskel’s all time favorite movie was Saturday Night Fever. He actually outbid Jane Fonda to purchase the iconic white suit which the movie’s star, John Travolta, wore on the promotional poster and in the pivotal final dance scene of the movie.

(SIDE NOTE: Siskel originally paid $2000 for the suit and sold it 17 years later for $145,000)

Siskel was always a bit hesitant to discuss why he loved the movie so much (he’s claimed to have watched it 17 times upon its release) but he did let his guard down when discussing the importance of the film with it’s star, Travolta, in an early 1980’s interview.

“Tony Manero (Travolta’s character) had the adolescence that I always wanted,” admitted Siskel.

“To be the king of the dance floor. To have girls hanging all over me. That’s what I wanted.”

“I was shy and awkward, like most kids,” Siskel recalled. “I would have given anything to transform.”

I think we can all relate to that idea. To that dream of being something bigger or more popular or just simply different than what we are.

Much of the fitness business is built on this idea of transformation. Of utilizing training, nutrition and other variables in order to become a completely different – or at the very least, superior – version of yourself.

I have very intimate knowledge of this. Because, at the risk of tooting my own horn here, I’ve undergone one of the more impressive transformations that I’ve ever witnessed.

Most successful fitness transformations follow one of two paths. Either the person loses a lot of weight and goes from heavy to thin or they go from a baseline of being scrawny to putting on muscle mass.

I did both.

I started out at a hefty 260lbs and managed to lose nearly 25% of my body weight. I’ve told this story many times before but it was a photo of my pale, skinny-fat self that made me realize that losing weight was only the first step to getting the body I ultimately wanted. I really wish I knew where that photo was but here is my famous “before” photo of me at probably my physical worst. This was just a few weeks prior to my 28th birthday.

The weight loss did ignite a real passion for fitness and sent me on a quest to actually figure out how I needed to train, eat, sleep and recover in order to achieve the vision I had for myself. That process took quite a bit longer than the initial weight loss but here I am about 1 month out from my 40th birthday and almost exactly 12 years after that first photo.

My own transformation was just the first of many that I’ve been involved in. Over the years I’ve helped hundreds and hundreds of people achieve some level of transformation – maybe not always quite as dramatic as my own – so I feel like I’m a decent authority on it. And in orchestrating these transformations I’ve certainly learned a few things.

Research shows that physical improvements and moving towards your ideal self does have a positive and long lasting impact. More than the amount of money you make or number of sexual partners you have, improving your physical appearance does promote happiness. And, while I don’t advocate for this, this is true whether that improvement comes from effort or cosmetic procedures (don’t hate on me, just reporting what research has found)..

Sure, you can fuck it up by getting there in a way that is truly damaging. But if you are smart and systematic and patient, physical changes can truly make you feel better about yourself.

While physical transformations have an enticing upside, the downside is just as impactful. There is a tendency – particularly in younger people – to believe that physical transformation will solve all problems and, obviously, that doesn’t prove to be true. Transformations can breed confidence but if you are a terrible communicator, have addiction problems or are a bad parent, all the abs in the world are not going to solve for that.

“Finish line” transformations, those with hard deadlines like the TV show “The Biggest Loser”, tend to drive results by less sustainable and, hence, less permanent means. People who tend to lose large amounts of weight (think 100 or more pounds) in less than a year tend to not be able to maintain that weight loss. Over 83% of “Biggest Loser” contestants regain at least 90% of the weight they lost on the show. This is another check mark for thinking about fitness as a long term endeavor, rather than something to be approached as a quick fix. You should see results starting to stack up shortly after engaging in a consistent, meaningful training program. But those results should be part of a slow and steady climb.

And all this brings me back to Gene Siskel and his false premise. That somehow being “King of The Dance Floor” would have solved his problems. Because if he was that popular, perhaps he would not have turned to the movies in an effort to find identity and connection and, ultimately, become one of the most well-known (and well paid!) film critics of all time. Instead maybe he would have ended up like Manero – a guy who is only able to really live with himself for those few hours on a Saturday night while he’s tearing up a Bay Ridge dance floor. The fact that someone as smart as Siskel didn’t recognize this paradox is somewhat shocking.

OK, I’ve worked my way down a rabbit hole and your attention span is waning so I’m going to wrap this up with a recap. Physical transformations can be very powerful, will likely improve your happiness and confidence and have a long term impact on your life – as long as you have a smart, thoughtful approach. They will not solve all your problems. You need to work on the other stuff, too. Not all transformations are physical.

People often ask me if my own transformation was worth it. If spending years of my life under a heavy barbell instead of in front of plates full of cake was the right decision. The answer is an emphatic “yes”, though I would have done a few things differently.

The research pans out. The rewards far outweigh the sacrifice.